Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Amongst the savage scientists   posted by Razib @ 12/06/2005 12:59:00 AM

Sometimes when I'm bored I stumble over to the The Valve, where gnxp regular John Emerson also hangs out. Today I saw this post which addressed the testimony of a sociologist of science for the pro-Design side in the Dover case. Basically, the issue is that the sociologist in question isn't a standard issue Post-Modernist, so what's going on here? John lands a good immediate punch, and I should have let it rest. But I had to add something myself:

his cv doesn't indicate any natural science background. i think that someone who wants to engage in meta-scientific chatter should at least have some basis within science ahead of time so that one is familiar with the culture. kuhn had a background in physics.

The author of the post, Jon Goodwin, responded, and I then went at it again. But the denouement was this comment from Jon:

Razib, I disagree very strongly with Fuller's position about this--to the point of mystification--but it's parochial to suggest that more time taking multiple-choice tests and dissecting things would have affected his later thinking. It's just completely irrelevant to the argument he's making. [my emphasis -Razib]

On the part I emphasized. I suggested in the comments that it is important for a philosopher or sociologist of science to have some familiarity with science or the scientific method. And, just as patent attorneys often have undergraduate or graduate level training in a science (though this isn't a hard and fast rule), so it would benefit intellectuals whose terrain is science to have some up close and personal contact. Now, first off, for a bachelors, I am skeptical that the expectation is that one could complete coursework with a predominance of multiple-choice tests. This certainly isn't so in physics and chemistry, where problem solving is priority, and not even in much of biology. Second off, the dirty details of dissection, or prepping experiments, etc. are I think essential dimensions of the scientific experience. If you are a sociologist of science, that is part of experience of that society.

As for the "big picture" of Fuller's argument that scientists themselves are not always the best at making meta-judgements because of their technical specializations, well, that's true much of the time. But it doesn't follow that someone who has distance will be better able to see the grand scope if they have no special handle on any of the details. Rather, the best scholars, I would argue, are those who can bring both the insider and outsider perspective. Thomas Kuhn had a doctorate in physics. Many of the thinkers in the Vienna Circle came from mathematical and scientific backgrounds. I have argued here that science is operationally a social enterprise, so it follows that one would gain great insight if one had been an active participant in the collective of a lab meeting, or socialized over some beers after a long day. Good sociology and history, and yes, even philosophy, should have some anthropology at its base.

This does not mean that what I allude to above are necessary conditions, or even sufficient ones, for a great scholar of the broad expanse of scientific learning. I'm not one, after all, to say that you have to be a Christian to study Christianity, or an African to study Africans. On the other hand, completing a 4 year science degree is much easier than forcing yourself to convert to Christianity, and not impossible like becoming an African if you aren't.

Consider if you will that an alien anthropologist tells some Navajos that the Clatsops are also Navajos. When the Navajos reject that contention, the anthropologist responds, "Well, being Navajos, you can't see the grand scope of how Navajoism expresses itself. Trust me, the Clatsops are Navajos." Now, if I tell the alien anthropologist, "hey, how about you go live among the Navajos before you lecture them about what constitutes appropriate Navajoism," and another individual responds, "Oh please. Now, I disagree with the alien anthropologist, obviously Clatsops and Navajos are distinct tribes. But you don't need to go live in a dirty hut on some rez in the middle of Arizona to figure that out." To which I'd say, "Well, yeah, you'd think so, but obviously not."

Update: One thing, I don't want to leave the impression that I am opposed to meta-analysis of science, and wish to leave each discipline as sui generis endeavours. There are obviously broad trends and characteristics that unite the natural sciences which should be studied by scholars. Some of the anthroplogists I most admire take a broad naturalistic view of their subject matter (human culture), but they nevertheless have some done field work among a specific people. In their literature it is clear that they use their specific knowledge of ethnic group X to test their deductive models about how cultural units in general should function and behave.

I will admit that Jon's allusion to "multiple-choice" is what prompted this post, my experience with other people who have completed science degrees is that we envy the multiple choice tests that seem rife in other departments. As it is, quite a few courses demand on-the-fly problem solving skills where questions are specifically generated which have no familiar models in the homework sets.

Update II: I've been busy today, but it has come to my attention that something similar to what I allude to above has been occurring on the political Right over in The Corner. I haven't read it in detail, but Derb is joing the fray and mixing it up. Here are the links:

Science vs. scientism - John J. Miller
Science vs. scientism - Jonah, quoting a reader:

It is therefore not the task of science to recognize and define the boundaries of science. This is a job for metaphysics (the study of non-physical realities) and epistemology (the study of how we know what we know). Both of these are elements in the philosophy of science.

More from Jonah (Jonah has some good common sense in this comment, in my opinion).
On science vs. scientism - Derb
Re: on science vs. scientism - Jonah (defends humanists)
Himmelfarb - Ramesh (defending her piece in TNR, beyond subscription wall, but you aren't missing anything)
More science vs. scientism - Derb
What Derb owes - Jonah (annoyed with Derb)
Yet more science vs. scientism - Derb (taking a hard evolcon stand)
Himmelfarb, CTD - Ramesh
Does Himmelfarb deserve better - Derb disses Gertrude again!
Science and philosophy - Ian Murrray, English conservative, tacitly supports Derb (from what I can tell)
Re: does Himmelfarb deserve better - Charles Murray shits on Derb here. In Derb's defense, the piece in TNR was a whole lot of fluff. I'll read her other stuff later perhaps, so I can't say....
Uh-Oh - Derb trying to make peace
Kristol, Theocons & Power - Jonah talks about some political stuff
The one thing you can say about Irving Kristol - J-Pod types something
Neocons vs. Darwin - Derb throws a rock at J-Pod
Feedback - K-Lo defends pro-ID conservatives (most of 'em in America)

I'm sure I missed stuff, and I didn't read 'em all. But, kind of interesting, shows how some Tribes cross political boundaries. If I didn't know any better I would have guessed GC got a hold of John's account and started posting, some of the comments were so biophilic....

Update III: Steve Fuller, the historian-philosopher of science who triggered this post ultimately with his pro-ID testimony in Pennsylvania, has responded over at The Valve. You can go judge for yourself if his contentions are worth interposing himself into forces of great social and cultural magnitude on this side of the pond.